Peter Bigelow
Print and money: How the West’s inflexibility costs us all.

Some things our industry does are simply extraordinary!

The technology we’ve imagined, created, developed and harnessed has been nothing less than awe-inspiring. We’ve helped put men on the moon and send intelligent transporters to the far reaches of outer space – incredible! We have transformed the automobile from a hunk of iron to an intelligent – and safe – lifestyle vehicle – amazing! We have been at the epicenter of the life-changing computer/communication revolution, enabling unthinkable resources and intelligence at our fingertips, anywhere in the world – unbelievable!

The list goes on. But there are some things we can’t do no matter how much technology, intelligence and capability are at our beck and call. For some reason, many are still plagued with the inability to … change a print.

Not everyone has this problem. Our Asian friends sure don’t; they have proved they can move on a dime. Ditto for the Silicon Valley firms that continually seek the best and newest to go to market with so our telecommuting/computing/entertainment devices are fresh and feature richer. Indeed, many in our global industry have taken the CAD tools, technical expertise that standards confirm, and good common sense, and quickly adapted the newest technologies, latest processes and current materials to their products.

But the same cannot be said for a large portion of the global industry, especially within large corporations in the Western hemisphere. The big companies, with big staff selling traditional products, seem to spend more time finding reasons not to change a print than it would take to just make the darn change and move on. The large DoD-driven and transportation companies are the worst, but their mantra of “no change at all costs” seems to trickle down and contributes mightily to the lack of competitiveness that the “West” has compared to their more entrepreneurial competitors in the “East.”

I personally have experienced some humdingers that drive home the costliness of this problem. One company, at its annual supplier “shake down,” asks what can be done to reduce product price. I ask if they need 100 microinches of gold as a surface finish on all their products, or would ENIG do? The response – the same every year – is, “What gold? We don’t need any gold on that product. Why are you putting gold on it?” “Well, Note 3 on the print says….” Every year, after much commotion it is determined that someone just cut-and-pasted the notes from a different product but no, no change to the print, as “it costs too much” to make a print change.

Then there was the customer who threw out close to $100,000 worth of product that its own quality inspection found superior to what it was buying but did not conform to a note on the print. To the scrap bin it went and a replacement order was issued – for inferior product! Another customer claimed that its corporate audit department had done a study and determined that it cost $2 million, not including obsolete inventory costs, to change a print in their company. There’s a new business: charging $2 million each to change their prints. It wouldn’t take many to become a millionaire.

As ridiculous as this seems, it is a real problem retarding the competitiveness of manufacturers in the US and Europe. Technology moves at breakneck speed; regulations are forcing materials and related processes to change at record paces. New and improved materials demand specifications as listed on notes on prints to evolve as technology dictates. Nothing is static, and that includes much of what is on a product print.

Large companies, especially the DoD-related ones, will say that discouraging print changing is all about maintaining quality. All companies, including the fastest-moving players from Silicon Valley to Shanghai, must ensure that the quality of their product is the very highest. “Mission critical” does not just apply to military systems; all product from automobiles to medical devices to communications and computing devices are mission critical to the companies that produce them. They must perform the due diligence necessary to be sure any change is appropriate and necessary. That’s where the entrepreneurs are kicking the proverbial butt of large Western companies. Most changes can be validated via standards, specifications from material manufacturers, and yes, good old common sense. 

If you don’t need gold, delete the note on the print that calls for it and replace it with an appropriate one. Does it really make a difference if the solder mask is matte vs. gloss? Why insist on searching every warehouse of every distributor for a discontinued material when the original material supplier has had a successful drop-in replacement in use for years? If these changes are significant to the performance of the product, then an engineer should be able to say, “Sorry, can’t make a change.” Why does every management level – most clueless about the particular item at hand – need to sign off and muck up such a simple review process? If a simple change to the print really does not make a functional difference – and might even improve the product’s performance and/or cost – then let the engineer at the lowest level do it and move on.

However, if the change will impact performance, or if the change is not as cut-and-dry as most might be, then pull together a small cross-discipline team to do the necessary due-diligence, make a decision and get it done – fast! That’s what world-class technology innovators do. More to the point, that’s what companies positioned to remain competitive in a fast-paced world must do to survive.

Dinosaurs die out. Want to ensure a future and stay competitive? Find a faster way to change a print – and fast!

Peter Bigelow is president and CEO of IMI (; This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. His column appears monthly.

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